Browns-Texans: Joe's Game Review

With each win, the games get bigger, writes OBR contributor Joe Brownlee. The Browns produced in this one, but that doesn't mean that there were still more opportunities. Here's Joe's thoughts on the game...

Another win! The Browns were able to put away a team that is better than its record that is also fighting for the playoffs. By beating the Texans, the Browns effectively take a two-game lead over them because of the head-to-head tie-breaker. The Browns started slow, but eventually wore down the Texans in a game that was not as close as the score indicates. That's not to say it was a perfect performance. At the risk of being accused of complaining when things are going well for the team, let's take a complete look at this victory.

Offense

Clearly, the Browns make a decision to run against the Texans. It was an interesting strategy. The book on the Texans is that they are tough up front, but their secondary has been decimated by injuries. Most observers expected a shootout. Instead, the Browns used a power rushing attack to set up the pass. This was not what I thought would happen, but it was an important step with four of the last five games being played outdoors in the Midwest and northeast.

Once again, the offensive line is the spark plug that makes this offense go. Despite Kevin Shaffer being nicked up and Ryan Tucker moving inside to guard, the line continues to play very effectively. Joe Thomas did surrender his first sack of the season, but it was the only one of the day. Other than that play, Derek Anderson was pressured maybe two or three times. Ryan Tucker had another motion penalty. Last week, the excuse was being on the road. Despite the fact that the offense has overcome these penalties many times, these need to be cleaned up. Early on, it was tough sledding in the run game. But as the Browns stuck with it, the line was able to open holes against a respectable defensive line. By the fourth quarter, Browns backs were hitting the second level on many plays.

Despite missing another swing pass, Lawrence Vickers continues to block at a very high level. Time after time I found myself complimenting him as he took out the man in the hole. Vickers was a key to the success the Browns had running the ball.

Jamal Lewis has been criticized by a lot of people. I wondered when the Browns signed him just what he had left. I liked what I saw in training camp. He had a huge day against the Bengals, but had been relatively quiet since, partly due to injuries. A very tough 92-yard game last week was said by some to have come only because of the opponent. I think this effort proves that wrong. There is no question Lewis is too slow to the hole at times, but he makes up for it with some gritty power running. The runs were short at first, but as the game wore on, Lewis began seeing those two-yard runs become five-yard runs. Jason Wright spelled Lewis for three carries, and I think the Browns need to sprinkle him in more. He hits the hole faster. I think more of Wright would have the same effect a change up has in baseball. Mixing speeds will keep the defense off balance. Probably the best run of the day came at the end. The Browns had fourth down and five. Passing on an easy field goal, the Texans and everyone else knew a run was coming. Lewis powered for about eight yards. Game over.

The receivers were not spectacular, but they were very effective. With Braylon Edwards covered much of the day, the Browns were able to repeatedly find Kellen Winslow down the seam. How many times did I beg to see that play last year? It was a bread-and-butter play in this game. The touchdown Winslow caught was a great job of shielding off two defenders. Winslow caught balls in situations where he wasn't really even open. Ten catches is a great day, yet, Winslow was open a few other times beyond those, once in the end zone. Edwards also had a good day, making two critical conversion plays on slants – one on fourth down. He had a nice touchdown and he is closing in on the team record for touchdown receptions. However, many will remember a drop on second and 11 that would have given the Browns a first down. Instead, they punted. Edwards is going to have to start making those plays. My favorite play of the day was a fantastic fake to Jamal Lewis with Vickers in front. The Texans bit and it left Joe Jurevicus open for a nice 25-yard gain to the other side.

All of this beings me to Derek Anderson. He has been widely praised for a good performance in this game. I agree. Yet, I was left thinking about the many off target throws that missed open receivers. The Browns left a lot of plays on the field, especially on third down. It's one thing to be stopped by the defense. Too many times, it was either a bad throw or a drop. There is no question conditions were not ideal. I watched the wind throughout the game. At times, the flags at opposite ends of the stadium were going in opposite directions. There were times the flags on top of the goal posts were going opposite directions just 18 feet apart! Some have pointed out that Anderson's passes tended to be too high going toward the Dawg Pound and too low going the other way. Whatever the reason, there is room for improvement.

Now having said some negative things above, the Browns still put up 27 points and could have certainly had three more at the end, perhaps even seven if they were not running the clock. Derek Anderson has 22 touchdowns, the most by a Brown since Bernie Kosar in 1987. Anderson has done that in 11 games, Kosar had 12 due to the strike. Let us not also forget that from 1985 to 2005, the Browns did not have a running back go over 100 yards. Lewis has done it twice despite missing some games. He has 54 yards in the fourth quarter when the Texans knew the Browns would run to work the clock. The Browns will need more of that as we roll on into December.

Defense

After ranting about the defense and how bad it was playing, how there wasn't a lot of hope for improvement during the season and so forth, it was gratifying to see the best defensive showing of the year. After getting worse and worse throughout the season, it seems to me that after giving up 14 points early to the Rams, the defense has been steadily improving, much of that due to a more aggressive approach. The Browns took that approach to the next level in this game, and it paid big dividends.

The Browns went into this game without Ethan Kelley and with Shaun Smith dinged up. It's hard to believe after the way the season started, but since the Browns moved on from Ted Washington, Smith and Kelley have gotten better and better and have become an effective young duo at the nose. Having one out and the other playing hurt seemed like it would be a recipe for disaster for the Browns. Instead, the defensive line not only held the point of attack, it was actually controlling the line. Robaire Smith has had a very good year and continues to be a force. Orpheus Roye is playing his best football of the year since getting healthy from offseason knee surgery. Simon Fraser also had a solid game. And let's not forget Willie McGinest who lined up over the center several times on passing downs. I don't want to forget Shaun Smith. If he was playing hurt, it didn't show. I thought this was his best game of the season. He looked good moving laterally and had a sack.

When things were going badly, I noted several times that the line not holding its ground was causing the whole 3-4 scheme to break down. With the line doing its job of late, the Browns have been able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Last week, the Browns sent safeties and corners throughout the game. This week, the Browns brought pressure from the linebackers. While they got just two sacks, Schaub was under pressure much of the game and forced him into several bad throws. Kamerion Wimbley was double teamed more than I've noticed in a while in this game. While McGinest is too slow to get to the quarterback, he still brought pressure. Antwaan Peek was able to be disruptive. The Browns also got a huge boost from the return of D'Qwell Jackson. His hustle on the inside has been missed, plus he had a great interception. Leon Williams not only rushed, but he ended up playing coverage several times, especially on the tight end with mostly good results. The one player who I thought had a so-so game at best was Andra Davis. He really needs to show something down the stretch.

The Browns secondary has been much maligned. Young Eric Wright is out with a bad knee. The Texans came in with a big time passing attack featuring Andre Johnson and former Brown Andre Davis. The Browns decided in this game to play a lot of man-to-man and press coverages instead of the soft zones we've seen far too much of late. Using this scheme paid off. Other than Leigh Bodden falling down on a play that turned into a touchdown and a very questionable pass interference call on Daven Holly (OK, it was a bad call), the secondary did a masterful job. Johnson was largely shut down. After last week noting the play of Brandon McDonald, he had a monster game this week, batting down passes and largely ending the game with a very nice interception. The Browns may have a great find in the fifth-round pick. The safeties also played well. Sean Jones in particular did a nice job in pass coverage.

Once the Browns went up 27-10 midway through through the fourth quarter, they went back to their familiar prevent mode and let the Texans march right down the field. Yet, that drive ate a good deal of the remaining clock. By the time Houston had closed to 27-17, the two-minute warning was in sight and Houston had just one timeout. I hate the prevent, but I can't argue with this strategy here.

I had said earlier this year that if the Browns defense went from awful to just poor, it would be huge. I'd say in this game, the defense played better than average. Yes, they gave up too many running plays of over five yards. The Texans never really hit on a big play, though. The bottom line is, the Browns scored 27 points and won comfortably. That is a huge improvement and bodes well for the stretch run.

Special Teams

After being a key to the success the Browns had in the last two games, the special teams were quiet. The Texans are smarter than the Ravens and proved it by keeping the ball away from Josh Cribbs for the most part. He did have one nice punt return. Phil Dawson had some pretty solid kickoffs in tough conditions, and he made his one field goal attempt. The Texans missed one in tricky winds. Dave Zastudil had two very bad punts, but he also had two good ones. Once again, it was hard to judge the wind. The Browns kick coverage units were solid, and I want to give a special nod to Nick Sorenson for fielding the onside kick attempt at the end. He got hit hard and held on. Nice work. Darnell Dinkins had another penalty that wiped out a nice return.

It was nice to see the special teams introduced before the game. They have been a huge part of this season's success, and the recognition was nice to see.

Coaching

It's hard to quibble with the conservative approach on offense when it ultimately proved to be so successful, but there was no doubt that I was surprised that Rob Chudzinski came out with such a conservative offensive game plan. It was a near 50-50 balance of run and pass. I really liked the drive in the third quarter when the Browns ran on nearly every play. Despite getting only a field goal, that was a statement drive. There some odd calls on short-yardage downs. Other teams have to recognize that we've run Vickers up the middle 80% of the time on those downs. We mixed it up a little in this game, but the Browns need to continue to find some other plays there. Once they lined up Cribbs behind Vickers and handed it to Vickers. It didn't fool them.

Please, please, please, let's see more of this kind of defensive scheme. It worked so well. It proves that despite holes here and there, the Browns do have the talent to compete on defense, even with two starters out. I was loving the fact that our corners weren't running backward at the snap. With this offense, I'd rather take a few chances on defense than play soft all the time.

Romeo Crennel has done a good job of keeping the team focused. I like the fact that they players, especially Kellen Winslow, continue to say that the team can play better. It can. But it's now December with the Browns 7-4. They are getting a lot of national media attention. They are the darlings of the NFL right now. It's going to be harder and harder to keep the team focused on the current opponent and not watch the scoreboard. With the Steelers stumbling, the Browns need to keep winning to keep the pressure on.

Pass The Gravy

Before the season started, I predicted a 6-10 finish this year, with an outside shot at 8-8. With the seventh win already in the bank, it's now time to officially eat crow. Who would have thought after the opening game drubbing against Pittsburgh, the Browns would be where they are now? Funny, back then 8-8 would have been considered a great year. At the bye, that might have been a solid finish. But since the bye, the Browns went 4-1 through some tough games, three of them on the road. Now 8-8 would be a disappointment. Wow. And how about CBS becoming a true home field advantage? Since that opening loss, the Browns have won all five home games.

Bottom Line

The Browns effectively eliminated the Texans as a wild card competitor. Meanwhile, the Titans were blown out at Cincinnati, moving the Browns into the 6th seed in the AFC. In other words, the Browns now control their own destiny. Win out and no matter what else happens, the Browns are in the playoffs. Other contenders such as Buffalo, Denver, Kansas City, and Baltimore also lost. The Chiefs and Ravens are for all practical purposes eliminated. The Browns cannot let down. Despite the records of the remaining opponents, each has shown itself capable of winning here of late. The Browns must remain focused and not look past anybody. A year ago, the Bengals were 8-5 with "easy" games remaining. They ended up 8-8 and sitting at home in January.

Next Up

The Browns go to Arizona for what may be their toughest remaining game. The Cardinals blew chances to win at the end of regulation and in overtime, then handed it over on a fumble in their own end zone. They put up a lot of points and have good receivers. They are likely to be mad. They desperately need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive going into a game with Seattle the following week.

As I said earlier, as you win, each game becomes bigger. This one is huge!

The season is short. Bark hard!


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